26 November 2010

Writing in India

For some time I have wanted to write a review of an article by Johannes Bronkhorst, now almost 30 years old.[1] The title is unprepossessing - "Some observations on the Padapāṭha of the Ṛgveda" - but the conclusions are interesting. The first part of his article recaps an earlier article that discusses the relative ages of the two forms of the Ṛgveda text. These two forms are Saṃhitāpāṭha and Padapāṭha. The Saṃhitāpāṭha (Sp) is the text as it is spoken. Sanskrit writing very early on recorded a great deal more of the spoken language than does our English script. Particularly as we run words together in spoken language we change the sounds subtly. In Vedic these changes - known as sandhi 'junctures' - are meticulously notated in the written text. By contrast the Padapāṭha (Pp) is more like English writing in that it records only the words themselves. The Pp is generally supposed to have been composed as an aide de memoir to help keep the oral tradition accurate. The extant Pp is attributed to Śākalya who's dates are uncertain.

I cannot reproduce Bronkhorst's complex arguments for the relative dating of Sp and Pp, but he concludes that the recension of the Pp that has come down to us is older than the recension of the Sp. Bronkhorst, as is his way, tells us his conclusion at the beginning: "I know of one plausible explanation: the Padapāṭha of the Ṛgveda was written down from its beginning" (p.184); and then offers his evidence.

The first evidence I have already mentioned: that the way we speak English is like the Sp, and the way we write it is like the Pp. He is suggesting that the relationship between Sp and Pp is just like the relationship between spoken and written English. The second is that the Pp contains some signs such as the daṇḍa (punctuation mark) and avagraha (similar to an apostrophe for noting elisions: like n't for not) which only really make sense in writing - they have no phonetic value of their own, and do not affect pronunciation generally. Like English punctuation they make reading easier. Bronkhorst also mentions a rule in Pāṇini's grammar which relates to the use of iti in more or less the same way as Western scholars use sic. He says:
"Pāṇini puzzles over the question of how the [manuscript] of the Ṛgveda (= Padapāṭha) must be read such that a correct recitation (= Saṃhitāpāṭha) is the result." (p.185)
This suggests that Pāṇini is likely to have been working with a written text.

As Bronkhorst himself says, there is no unanimity on the date for the beginning of writing in India. Bronkhorst himself opts for the case made by Bühler [2] who places the date at about 800 BCE.
"If we accept Bühler's ideas, and estimate that it took the Brahmans about a century to adopt the alphabet and adjust it to their needs, the earliest possible date for [the written text] becomes 700 [BCE]. A later date must however be prepared." (p.186)
Perhaps Bronkhorst reflects the state of knowledge at the time he was writing, though it is hard to imagine 78 years having passed with no contribution. In any case the subject has definitely moved on since Bronkhorst's article. Compare Richard Salomon in Indian Epigraphy [3]:
Bühler's suggestion of an early date of ca. 800 BC, or possibly earlier, for the 'introduction of prototypes of the Brāhma letters' in India is hardly plausible in light of modern knowledge, but more cautious estimates such as that of A. B Kieth [4] that 'the real development of writing belongs in all likelihood to the fifth century' are not unreasonable. (p.13)
Salomon points out that both the literary and epigraphical evidence is "vague or inconclusive" (p.12). It is rather more conventional to date writing in Indian to the 4th century BCE because this is the earliest date that can be confirmed by inscriptions minus a century. [5] (This practice of adding or subtracting a century to allow things to develop is pretty standard for scholars, though I sometimes wonder how justified it is!). However Salomon (p. 12) notes that pottery shards with Brahmī script writing found in Sri Lanka in the 1990's are variously dated to the 6th-4th century BCE, with most recent articles opting for the later end of the spectrum (i.e. towards the 4th century). [6]

Writing did not develop spontaneously in India, but was adapted from outside models. There is ample evidence for contact between India and the rest of the world. Already by the time the Buddha was born (ca 480 BCE) the Achaemanids were exacting tribute from the north-west of India (as far as the Indus River), and possibly were a substantial presence. As proof of contact Bronkhorst cites the Biblical mention of aloe-wood in Numbers (xxiv.6) which may date from between 900-722 BCE. Unfortunately the materials used for writing in India were not always durable, and stone inscriptions were not widely used until the reign of Aśoka (who may well have been imitating the Persian kings in his inscriptions).

The earliest form of writing we know about is the Kharoṣṭhī script which is clearly modelled on the Aramaic script used by Achaemanid Persian administrators. The Brahmī script is less clearly modelled on an outside script, but most scholars still see a relationship to Aramaic. I accept the arguments of Steve Farmer and Michael Witzel that the Indus Valley script is a form of graphic communication, but does not represent language - i.e. it is not writing, but similar to graphic signs in Sumeria about the same time.[7]

The received tradition is that (religious) Indians were not interested in writing because sacred texts were memorised and passed on orally. Though of course this does not explain why merchants and administrators would not use it, especially when they were in direct contact with cultures that did use writing much earlier. Although the evidence for an absolute date for writing in India, after more than a century of study is, in Salomon's words "disappointingly inconclusive"; and although Bronkhorst cannot establish a relative date for the Ṛgveda Padapāṭha, except in relation to the Saṃhitāpāṭha, we see in his article a contradiction of the old chestnut that ancient Indians were not interested in writing. The Ṛgveda was written down early on, probably by the time of Pāṇini, which suggests that writing may well have been in use during the life time of the Buddha, or not so very long afterwards. The writing down of the Buddhist canon in the 1st century BCE, therefore, was not the radical innovation that it is sometimes portrayed as. As the recent discovery tells us, writing may have been in use in Sri Lanka for 3 or 4 centuries by that time.

What Bronkhorst shows is that the relationship to writing may have been more complex, both at any give time and across time, than we generally think.


  1. Bronkhorst, Johannes. 1982. "Some observations on the Padapāṭha of the Ṛgveda." Indo-Iranian Journal. 24: 181-189.
  2. Bühler, Johan Georg. Indian Paleography, edited by John Faithful Fleet. Bombay: Bombay Education Society's Press, 1904. (Reprinted by Oriental Books Reprint Copr. 1980)
  3. Salomon, Richard. Indian Epigraphy: a guide to the study of inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the other Indo-Aryan languages. Oxford University Press, 1998. [This is an excellent and authoritative guide to the history of writing in India]
  4. Salomon is citing from E.J. Rapson (ed.) 1922. Cambridge History of India, vol. 1 'Ancient India'. Cambridge University Press, p.126.
  5. e.g. A. L. Basham. The Wonder that was India. 3rd revised edition. Rupa & Co. 1967. Writing is down played to the extent of not being mentioned in many histories of India, e.g. Stein, Burton. A History of India. Blackwell,1998; Thapar, Romila. The Penguin History of Early India : from Origins to AD 1300. Penguin, 2002.
  6. I've seen the 6th century figure seized upon and used as evidence of Brahmī being invented in Sri Lanka.
  7. A good place to start is Farmer, Steve. A One-Sentence Refutation of the Indus-Script Myth. 2005-2008; also excellent is Steve Farmer, Richard Sproat, and Michael Witzel, The collapse of the Indus-script thesis: The myth of a literate Harappan civilization. Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies 11-2 (13 Dec. 2004): 19-57.

image: Ṛgveda Saṃhitāpāṭha 1.1-2.

19 November 2010

Philological Odd & Ends V

philologyMANY WORDS HAVE INTERESTING STORIES associated with them. This is a fifth set of terms which have caught my eye as having some interest, but which did not rate a whole post on their own. There is a list of other terms I've written about at the bottom of this page.

On this page: megha, mañju, saṅgha

Megha is straightforward enough in use: it means "cloud". It's a common element in Buddhist names, and titles of texts. However the etymology is interesting. The Proto-Indo-European root is *√meigh 'to urinate'. The root appears in a number of IE languages: in Greek (with a prefix) omichlē 'vapour'; Latin micturīre, mingere 'to urinate'; Middle Dutch mist 'mist'; Old Saxon mistil 'mistletoe'; English mist, mizzle (like drizzle), mistletoe, (and from Latin) micturate. Note that down the Greek and Germanic lines it is also associated with weather phenomena, whereas in Latin it sticks to urination.

In Sanskrit the root becomes √mih (3rd person singular: mehati) - PIE 'gha' sounds regularly become 'ha' in Sanskrit (see saṅgha below). In Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 1.1 the sacrificial horse (aśva-medhya) is related to the entire world and one aspect of this is: yad mehati tad varṣati '[the horse] urinates, it rains'. There is a present-participle meghamāna 'urinating; sprinkling' which has a vestigial gha, and I suspect that the word for cloud may be a contraction from this that became lexicalised (i.e. became a word in it's own right). Perhaps we should not be surprised at this connection as it is common, and not even very vulgar, to refer to rain as "pissing down".

PED seems confused when it says that megha is not from Sanskrit √mih but from PIE *√meigh, since √mih derives from *√meigh according to every other authority. In an amusing example of Victorian squeamishness Whitney can't bring himself to use the word 'urinate' and glosses √mih with the Latin mingere 'urinate' in his book of Sanskrit roots and forms.

Here is an example of how difficult it can be to sort out the etymology of a word. It's not until we consult a very wide range of sources that we can triangulate something sensible. (I consulted 9 dictionaries in 6 languages).

In Sanskrit and Pāli the word means 'beautiful, lovely, charming, pleasant, sweet.' Apparently related to S. & P. maṅgala 'lucky, auspicious, prosperous.' Explained by traditional lexicons as deriving from √mang (not included in Whitney though). The Indo-European root appears to be *√meng. The various sources explain this different ways. Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture (J. P. Mallory, Douglas Q. Adams) [EIEC] suggests a root *meng meaning 'charm, deceive' but only tentatively groups the listed cognates together. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (Calvert Watkins) [AHD] define *meng 'to furbish'. The Online Indo-European Lexicon (Jonathan Slocum) [OIEL] has 'to make pretty, beautify' but offers no further information.

PED and EIEC link the root to Greek mágganon 'to charms; play tricks' (though OED defines this word as 'engine of war, axis of pulley'. None of the Greek dictionaries I consulted confirm this! In fact the words related to mágganon look suspiciously related to mageuō 'magic' (they mostly have a single 'g')

AHD further links *√meng 'furbish' with Latin mangō 'furbisher, gem polisher, swindler' > English monger (as in fish-monger). In Greek AHD links to manganon 'magic charm, contrivance, engine of war' > mangonel. The Online Etymology Dictionary links monger to Gk. manganon 'contrivance, means of enchantment,' from PIE base *mang- 'to embellish, dress, trim.' I can't find either manganon or *√mang in my Greek Dictionaries (is it a derived form?), though Eric Partridge Origins agrees and adds 'to deceive by means of beauty' to the list of meanings of the root.

Meanwhile mañju is also said to mean 'gentle, soft' in Buddhist names. This is due to the influence of Tibetan. The Tibetans render manñju as 'jam (འཇམ). So S. Mañjughoṣa becomes Tibetan Jamyang ('jam dbyangs/འཇམ་དབྱངས) 'gentle voiced'. [thanks to Maitiu

Here is a word very commonly used in Buddhism, but with a rather confused etymology. Even the spelling is confused. MW and Apte spell it saṃgha, whereas PED spells it saṅgha. All authorities agree that the word is prefixed with sam– and under most circumstances a nasal followed by gha would change to , i.e saṅgha. I think I know why it might not in this case, but we need to look more closely at the etymology before attempting to explain it.

MW seems hardly plausible in deriving saṃgha from sam– + √han. That root means ‘to kill, to strike’ and is clearly inappropriate here. PED derives saṅgha from sam– + √hṛ; where √hṛ means ‘to take, bear, carry’ and the combination means ‘to bring together, unite, collect’. MW also has an entry for saṃ√hṛ with more or less the same meaning. At first glance sam√hṛ works semantically but leaves us with the morphological problem of deriving gha from hṛ.

MW compares √hṛ to Greek kheir (χείρ) ‘the hand’ but, again, he may have this wrong. Gk. kheir gives us the English chiromancy ‘divination by examining the hand’, and surgeon. It stems from a PIE root *√ghesr ‘hand’. It is more likely √hṛ (harati ‘to carry, to take) is from PIE *√gher ‘grab, grip, seize’. This then gives us a Greek cognate khortos 'enclosed space'; from which comes the Latin hortos and E. horticulture (c.f. Welsh garth ‘fold, enclosure’; Irish gort ‘crop, field’); and Gk. khoros > E. choir, chorus. In addition the Germanic cognate *gurdjan > E. girdle, yard, orchard. Interestingly there is a L. parallel from PIE *ko(m)-ghṛ (= S. samhṛ) > L. cohors > E. cohort, court. This suggests √hṛ is the correct root, and that the gha is archaic. This happens in other words, for instance √han, mentioned above. The 3rd person singular 'he kills' is hanati, but the plural 'thy kill' is ghnanti, the perfect form is jaghāna; and aorist aghāni. This may explain why Sanskrit dictionaries insist on the spelling saṃgha, because the root is hṛ and sam–hṛ > saṃharati; though my understanding is that the sandhi should apply and saṅgha is the more correct spelling.

So we might speculate an archaic (and unattested) Sanskrit form *ghṛ, or perhaps *ghar. There is a Sanskrit root √ghṛ with a causative in √ghar, but with a different meaning. Then just as √gaṃ can form a suffix -ga with the meaning 'going' (a kvi suffix, often adjectival in sense); ghṛ/ghar must at one time have formed a suffix -gha.

We know that √han forms a kvi suffix -gha (with the sense of an action noun 'killing'), and it may have been this that MW was thinking of. Perhaps he saw possible relationship to PIE *√gwhen: 1. to hit, to strike; 2. to swell. As an aside the first sense has an Old Norse derivative gandálfr lit. 'staff-elf', i.e 'a wizard', source for Tolkien's Gandalf. It may be that MW had the second in mind. However the form is poorly attested in practice - only a few words survive from this root. It is thought to be related to the Greek euthenos (εὐθηνέω) 'to flourish'. OIEL also relates it to āhanaḥ, but MW defines this in line with √han 'to strike'. I think two Pāli words may be related to gwhen(2): ghaṭa can have the sense of 'multitude' as well as 'vessel'; similarly ghaṭṭan covers both 'strike' and 'combination'. In Sanskrit MW has ghaṭana 'connection, union with'; Macdonell has ghaṭā 'multitude, host, troop'. These point to the root √ghaṭ which Whitney glosses as 'strive', which MW expands with 'to be in connection with, or united with'. I've already mentioned that √han has a kvi suffix form -gha. This would give saṃgha 'united, striving together'. This is all quite speculative, and since we don't have MW we can't know what his (and his subsequent editors) thinking was.

Just to reiterate I think we can best understand saṅgha as deriving from sam- + √hṛ, with gha being kvi suffix, the 'g' being a legacy from the PIE root *√gher. The correct spelling, taking into account Sanskrit sandhi rules, is saṅgha; though I think we are stuck with saṃgha as well.

See also

12 November 2010

Action and Intention

IN THIS POST I'M REVISITING an old favourite of mine. I mention one of the phrases in this sutta - cetanāhaṃ, bhikkhave, kammaṃ vadāmi - on a regular basis. I've even done a commentary on it. Here I translate the section of the Discourse on Piercing - Nibbedhika Sutta (AN 6.63 PTS A iii.414) - that contains the phrase and this sheds further light on the idea it is expressing. It came up recently on Elisa Freschi's blog sanscrite cogitare, sanscrite loqui in the comments on a post called 'Desire, cognition and action', looking at the role of intention and cognition in actions. The role of intention in actions naturally brought to mind the Buddha's equation of cetanā and kamma.

The Nibbedhika Sutta consists of an introduction and then several sections with the same form. It concerns correctly identifying certain things, their cause, their distinctiveness, their result, their cessation, and the way to make them cease. Clearly this format is an expansion on that used in the ariyasacca or truths of the nobles ones (dukkha, samudaya, nirodha, magga). The 'things' are: sensuous pleasure (kāma), sensations (vedanā), apperceptions (saññā), influxes (āsavā), action (kamma), disappointment (dukkha).

Translation [1]

Action should be known, the basis (nidāna-sambhava) for action should be known, the distinctiveness (vemattatā) of action should be known, the result (vipāka) of actions should be known, the cessation (nirodha) of action should be known, the way to bring about cessation of action (kamma-nirodha-gāminī paṭipada) should be understood. This was said, but why? I call action ‘intention’. Having thought/intended one acts, with body, speech, or mind.

And what is the basis for actions? Contact [between sense faculty and sense object] is the basis for actions.

And what is the distinctiveness of actions? There is the action to be experienced (vedanīyaṃ) in hell (niraya); the action to be experienced as an animal (tiracchānayoni); the action to be experienced in the domain of hungry ghosts (pettivisaya); the action to be experienced in the human realm (manussaloka); and the action to be experienced in the god realm (devaloka).

And what is the result of action? I say there are three kinds of result: to be experienced in this world (diṭṭhe-dhamme); in the next rebirth (upapajje); or in subsequent rebirths (aparāpariya). [2]

And how does action cease? It ceases with the cessation of contact. With the noble Eightfold-path (ariyo aṭṭḥaṅgiko maggo) being the way to bring about the cessation of action: perfect-vision, perfect intention, perfect speech, perfect action [3], perfect livelihood, perfect effort, perfect mindfulness, perfect concentration. [4]

Because of this a Noble Disciple knows action, its basis, its distinctiveness, its result, its cessation, and the way to bring about that cessation. He knows this piercing spiritual path for the cessation of action.

This is what was said, and why it was said.
A few comments. Firstly we have the sequence: contact > intention > action. This is descriptive not prescriptive; an outline of the process, rather than concrete definition. It highlights the aspects of our responses to the world which are important for the Buddhist project/object. [5] The important thing is that action is a response. As I said in my earlier commentary the underlying root of cetanā:
"...concerns what catches our attention on the one hand, and what we move towards on the other; or, what is on our minds, and what motivates us (emotions are what 'set us in motion')" - Ethics and Intention.
As humans we are flooded with sensory impressions, some of which gain our attention, some of which we respond to unconsciously. Broadly speaking we are either drawn towards or away from stimulus, and actions are how these tendencies play out in the mind, speech and body. The text presents the outcomes of actions in terms of various realms of rebirth: hell, animal, hungry-ghost, human, god. If we are uncomfortable with these as literal destinations - and let's face it, most of us Westerners are - we can perhaps see these as metaphors for moods in which our mental life takes place. [6] Either way the result is general, not specific - this important point is often lost sight of in discussion of karma, especially when people are looking for reasons that specific bad things happen to people. All you can really say is that kamma has meant a human rebirth - the details are not covered, though of course any rebirth in saṃsāra is by definition disappointing. There is no answer to the question "why me?"; one can only think in terms of "now what?"

The text's answer to "now what?" is to invoke the eight-fold path, i.e. having defined the problem in general terms it offers a generic solution. Still, the specific insight contained in the equation of kamma and cetanā is an interesting one to reflect on.


  1. Pāli text from CST.
  2. c.f. Vism xix.14: "Thus there are four kinds of kamma: to be experienced in this world, to be experience on rebirth, to be experienced in some subsequent rebirth, and kamma which doesn’t ripen [because it is inhibited by a more potent kamma]." Tattha catubbidhaṃ kammaṃ – diṭṭhadhammavedanīyaṃ, upapajjavedanīyaṃ, aparāpariyavedanīyaṃ, ahosikammanti. See also PED s.v. ahosi-kamma.
  3. i.e. action (kamma) ceases through acting perfectly (sammākammanta) - this kind of tautology does not seem to bother the author of the Pāli.
  4. sammādiṭṭhi, sammāsaṅkappa, sammāvācā, sammākammanta, sammājīva, sammāvāyāma, sammāsati, sammāsamādhi. I follow Sangharakshita in translating the word samma (S. saṃyak) as perfect. I think 'right' reflects a bygone era, and if it ever conveyed the right impression it now seems a bit bloodless. I wrote about this word in Philological Odds and Ends III.
  5. Project/Object was a term coined by Frank Zappa for his oeuvre when considering all it's various manifestations (including recording, live performances, interviews, writing, and film) considered as a whole. From our point of view it includes all the positive things that Buddhists do.
  6. C.f. Trungpa and Freemantle. The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Shambala, 1975. (esp. p.5-10); and Sangharakshita. A Guide to the Buddhist Path. Windhorse, 1990. (esp. 'The Six Realms." p.81 ff.).

05 November 2010

Pāli Texts as Historical Sources

monks from central AsiaTRYING TO USE THE PĀLI CANON as an historical source presents many challenges. An important thread that I'd like to mention, but not go into this time, is the existence and understanding of physical - archaeological and epigraphical - evidence. Greg Schopen in particular has pointed to the discrepancies in the stories told by physical and textual evidence; and the incompleteness of any historical account which ignores the physical evidence (which at last count includes about 95% of Buddhist historiography). That said I want to look at a particular problem related to early Buddhist texts.

I have been researching the way that Brahmins are characterised in the suttas because I think recent discoveries make it worth looking at them again. It is interesting for instance to find that no Brahmin ever mentions ātman, nor equates ātman and brahman; and no belief in ātman is ever credited to a Brahmin; though lots of them seem to follow a cult of Brahmā. This is surprising given the received teaching that the Buddha taught anatta as a direct response to Brahmanical religious ideas. Here I want to show that the way that Brahmins are presented in the canon is more complex than Buddhists usually allow.

Esukārā Sutta (MN 96, M ii.180)
Tatridaṃ, bho gotama, brāhmaṇā brāhmaṇassa sandhanaṃ paññapenti bhikkhācariyaṃ; bhikkhācariyañca pana brāhmaṇo sandhanaṃ atimaññamāno akiccakārī hoti gopova adinnaṃ ādiyamāno'ti

Here, Mr Gotama, the Brahmins declare that the wealth (sandha) of the Brahmin, is wandering for alms (bhikkhācariyaṃ); and a Brahmin who neglects wandering for alms, is not doing their duty: they are [like] a guard taking the not given.
Subha Sutta (MN 99, M ii.197)
brāhmaṇā, bho gotama, evamāhaṃsu: gahaṭṭho ārādhako hoti ñāyaṃ dhammaṃ kusalaṃ, na pabbajito ārādhako hoti ñāyaṃ dhammaṃ kusalan'ti.

Brahmins speak thus Mr Gotama: "the householder is accomplished in the correct manner, the dhamma which is wholesome. The gone-forth (pabbajito) is not accomplished in the correct manner, in the dhamma which is wholesome".
These two passages characterise Brahmins in diametrically opposed terms. The context for both of these statements is a conversation between a Brahmin and the Buddha on the appropriateness of traditional Brahmin values: brahmaṇa here is not being used as a metaphor for the ideal Buddhist. Both discussions occur in Anāthapiṇḍika's park. Esukārī is concerned with class and status, while Subha is concerned with the best lifestyle for a Brahmin. Esukārī uses a term which I had not encountered before: bhikkhācariya. Clearly this is related to the familiar term bhikkhu. Bhikkhā means 'to beg, or to make one's living by begging'; and cariya literally means 'walking', or figuratively 'behaving or to make one's way'. This is the lifestyle the original Buddhist monks adopted before settling into monasteries. But, according to Subha, it is precisely the wrong way to be a good Brahmin.

Subha expands his description of a good Brahmin with a list of five qualities (dhamme): truth, asceticism, celibacy, study, and generosity (sacca, tapa, brahmacariya, ajjhena, cāga). The Buddha's subsequent critique of him is one that is used frequently, which is that no Brahmin living or dead has ever known for themselves the truth of their pronouncements. They are just words; the blind leading the blind. This approach is epitomised by the Tevijja Sutta (DN 13). I wonder how many Buddhists look at this text and have secret doubts about the path they extol, but have never personally witnessed? How can I authentically stand up declare nibbāṇa as the goal, when I have no experience of it?

There are a number of ways to look at this text-historical problem. Firstly we must consider the possibility that the Pāli texts contain no useful historical information, that they are just stories made up once Buddhism became established (which may not have been until much later than we usually think). In this view contradictions are meaningless or at best represent confusion on the part of the authors. This approach gets us nowhere. We know that not long after the time period the texts purport to be from there is definite physical evidence of a thriving Buddhist community. There is a history of Buddhism, and clearly Buddhist culture evolved over time. Being unprepared to simply give up, I think we must reject this position and proceed, though with caution.

We might take the less extreme position that the Pāli canon only tells us about the prejudices of the early Buddhists. This we must take more seriously. Clearly there is no attempt to be fair in portraying rival religious practitioners in Buddhist texts. There is quite a lot of invective against people who are ito bahiddhā 'outside the teaching'; just as other the texts of other religions seldom mention Buddhists in a positive light, and parody our beliefs. But amongst the early texts are insults directed at Buddhists by others. Unflattering descriptions of Buddhists are quite unlikely to have been made up ex-nihilo by Buddhists, and likely reflect actual criticisms, actual dialogues. But how far does the Buddhist distortion of what they write about extend? Are lay villagers or kings, for instance, portrayed equally poorly by Buddhist monks?

With these last questions in mind I think we can take one more step and say that the texts, while largely filled with Buddhist rhetoric, do give us glimpses of history. There is a big problem in deciding what time period the texts represent. Until we get more evidence this is an insurmountable problem. I do not agree with those who only accept the physical evidence, which suggests that the Canon may date from the 4th century AD, because I do accept that the texts themselves can tell us things. Surely for instance King Asoka would have been mentioned if he pre-dated the texts; though some use the same argument to say that if the Pāli canon existed that Asoka would surely have mentioned it. My view is that the Pāli texts were probably composed and developed over several centuries starting during the Buddha's lifetime which was in the 5th or 4th century BCE. They were probably collated at some later, as yet undetermined date, mostly like in stages so that the nikāyas represent originally distinct collections. The existence of three and four different versions of some stories, distributed through the nikāyas, with major and minor differences, suggests to me a number of parallel lineages which persisted separately for some time before being collected together.

There is no need to give a straw man such complexity, so it seems to me plausible that Brahmins did indeed experience the kinds of conflict I have highlighted above. On the one hand there was a conventional, conservative streak to Brahmin society which saw duty and family as central; while on the other there were those who saw leaving home as necessary. On the whole the Buddha clearly considered the latter a better option - he was in the jargon of our time 'anti-family' [1]. However in this discussion with Subha he makes it clear that the lifestyle is less important than the practice of the Dhamma - echoing Sangharakshita's oft quoted (and oft misunderstood) aphorism:

Commitment is primary; lifestyle is secondary.

Commitment is more important than lifestyle, but lifestyle is not unimportant. In any case this conflict between conservative and progressive forces amongst Brahmins may come as no surprise. We have evidence from Vedic sources of these changes. Some scholars have spoken of the internalisation or interiorisation of the sacrifice, that is the move to perform the sacrifice in imagination or as a meditation. Some of these ideas are expressed in the so-called āranyka or forest texts. These texts post-date the Vedas by some centuries, but predate Buddhism by a similar time span. Some parts of the Brahmin community embraced this change, while others resisted. Although there seems to be some ambiguity, it is likely that the jaṭila or 'matted hair' practitioners were Brahmins. I haven't yet found a Canonical text which makes this explicit, though in one the jaṭila is the follower of a Brahmin. The name often occurs in lists: ājivikā nigaṇṭha jaṭilā paribbājakā (c.f PED s.v. jaṭila; e.g. S i.77; see: How to Spot an Arahant) so we know they were not Jain, or Ājivika. The word jaṭila doesn't seem to appear in the Ṛgveda or the Atharvaveda, but does occur in the Mahābhārata.

Signe Cohen has suggested that the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad (BĀU) reflects a conflict between sages associated with the Yajurveda, in particular Yajñavalkya, and sages from other lineages particularly those associated with the Ṛgveda, from the point of view of YV sages.[2] Johannes Bronkhorst has argued that BĀU (along with other early Upaniṣads) shows Brahmins in the process of adopting ideas which originate amongst the samaṇa communities of North-Eastern India, the area he calls Greater Magadha. [3] Note that though we have some evidence of familiarity with Vedic ideas in Buddhist texts, that the important figure of Yajñavalkya is entirely absent. This evidence from non-Buddhist sources reinforces the view that the Pāli texts do record an historical conflict, though perhaps from some distance.

Brahmins themselves make up a large number of converts - both Esukārī and Subha make a formal conversion, though this could be a rhetorical device (one that was to become increasingly popular in Buddhist texts). We would expect some familiarity with Brahmanical culture and religion from a community with a substantial Brahmin membership. The fact that only more peripheral themes of the Upaniṣads and not the central themes are found in the Pāli texts is all the more difficult to understand in this light. Perhaps it suggests that converts came from the conservative rather than the progressive faction?

My view is that with many caveats, we can look at history through the lens of the Pāli texts, and that to some extent they tell us about the time of the Buddha, or at least that time and some centuries afterwards. In a short essay there is not time to deal adequately with the caveats, but I have at least made mention of the main ones. My conclusion is no doubt influenced by being Buddhist, and therefore being drawn to see the Buddha as an historical figure, rather than a legend. Though of course many legendary figures are based on real people. However it is important to note that any historical conclusions are by nature provisional and tentative. As a Buddhist I consciously (and happily) act as though the Buddha lived and taught; as a scholar I am required to be more cautious and doubtful. There is a definite tension.

For a more in-depth look at historical issues in texts this article is very illuminating:
Walters, Jonathan S. "Suttas as history: four approaches to the sermon on the noble quest (ariyapariyesana-sutta)." History of Religions 38(3) Feb 1999: p.247-284.

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  1. Jesus was also quite anti-family. He is reported as saying, for example: "For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law" (Matt. 10:35); and "If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26)
  2. Cohen, Signe. Text and Authority in The Older Upaniṣads. Leiden: Brill, 2008.
  3. Bronkhorst, Johannes. 2007. Greater Magadha : studies in the culture of early India. Leiden : Brill.

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